1923-1977: A Brief History Of Rise Of Right Wing In Israel
From a perennial voice in the opposition, how the right wing in Israel came to be the natural group for governance. A brief history here.
The year 2015 saw Israeli voters re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu for a fourth term. The public seemed to be impressed by his promises of never accepting a Palestinian state, which is a concealed green light to continue expanding Jewish settlements in the disputed territories.
Three back-to-back victories of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, led by his own Likud party, also reveals how the majority of the country has turned towards the right. An annual survey carried out by Israel Democracy Institute confirms this development. Forty-nine per cent of young Israelis describe their political views as right-wing. Twenty-seven per cent view themselves as centrist and about 16 per cent say they lean towards the left.
The shift towards the right wing is more pronounced among the country’s youth. A 2016 poll of Jewish-Israeli teens released by Israel Hayom, an Israeli daily, showed that 59 per cent identified themselves with the right wing.
An overwhelming majority of the country’s youth is now pessimistic about the chances of success of the Israel-Palestine peace process. And the reason, many believe, lies in the rise of the ‘right’ in Israel. Former United States secretary of state John F Kerry, before demitting office, commented that Netanyahu’s government was the “most right-wing coalition in Israeli history” – a label many present-day Israeli youth will be glad to accept.
While the right wing dominates the political landscape in Israel today, it wasn’t always the case. In fact, after Israel came into being, for almost three decades, the Jewish state was ruled by the left parties. It was only in the ninth Knesset elections in May 1977 that the right-wing Likud alliance defeated the Labour alignment for the first time.
So, what exactly does the Israeli right represented by the Likud advocates stands for, and how did it reach its political zenith?
The ultimate objective of Likud, the principal right-wing party, has always been "Eretz Yisrael"—Greater Israel. The slogan has its roots in the ideology of Revisionist Zionism. This strand of Zionist thought advocates a “re-examination” of the principles of Zionism. Before the creation of the state of Israel, the revisionists urged the Jewish leadership to relentlessly pressure the British mandate for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and among other things demanded compulsory military training for the youth. The revisionists did not perceive themselves as another Zionist faction but as the true advocates of Zionism and the real representatives of the Jewish nation.
This thought was solidified in the creation of the Betar Movement founded in Riga, Latvia around 1923 by the lawyer, writer, journalist and ideologue Vladimir Jabotinsky (later on learning modern Hebrew, Jabotinsky took a Hebrew name, changing Vladimir to Ze'ev, meaning wolf). The movement strove to fulfill “the inalienable right of the Jewish people to all of the Land of Israel.” Many hardcore leftist observers of Israeli politics with a “liberal” point of view like to shower Jabotinsky with the F-word: Fascist.
However, Jabotinsky was an urbane scholar raised in multilingual Odessa, Russia and worked in Italy as a newspaper correspondent. Looking up to Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian general who helped unify his country, Jabotinsky advocated for a Jewish military force while cherishing 19th-century European liberal ideals, particularly freedom of thought, championing individual proprietorship as opposed to state socialism professed by several mainstream Zionists of his time. His writings, many of them written under the pseudonym of “Altalena” (swing in Italian) earned him a reputation as an accomplished Russian writer.
During the First World War, Jabotinsky served as a military correspondent from different fronts and later joined the Jewish Legion within the British Army. This experience motivated him to infer that military education of the young generation was a major part of normalising the “Jewish race”.
A loyal Zionist, in 1921, he was elected as a member of the Executive of the Zionist Organisation (which later became the World Zionist Organisation) but two years later, resigned protesting the policy of WZO chairman and future President of Israel Chaim Weizmann, which he felt was not effective to further the prospects of a Jewish state. Betar was Jabotinsky’s counter to WZO. An important demand raised by Jabotinsky through Betar was the reestablishment of the Jewish Legion within the British Army for protecting the Jewish residents of the British Mandate of Palestine. He felt this would make Jews more secure as they would be able to deal with Arabs from a position of strength.
Jabotinsky passionately believed in the indisputable right of the Jewish people over Eretz Israel, which was to become the independent Jewish state. He held the national-ethnic identity as the most significant source of solidarity in human history. At the same time there were certain liberal ideals he believed in which are best described in the words of scholar Raphaela Bilski Ben-Hur:
There is little doubt that Jabotinsky was a committed 19th Century Liberal who succeeded in adapting his liberal teachings to the complexity of the modern world. He did state that, had he been able, he would have composed a political Philosophy based entirely on the premise that every individual is a king.
Certain scholars have stated that the meshing of Jabotinsky’s Zionism with liberal thinking can be seen from his ideas regarding the role of non-Jews in the future Jewish state. In his own words:
We envision the regime of Jewish Palestine (Eretz Israel ha-Ivri) as follows: most of the population will be Jewish, but equal rights for all Arab citizens will not only be guaranteed, they will also be fulfilled.
In this regard, he was identical to the liberal Zionists Theodore Herzl and Max Nordau. Another brillant exposition of Jabotinsky’s Euro-liberal views was his response to those in Betar who requested him to become a sort of dictator to lead their movement in the 1932 World Revisionist Conference in Vienna:
Jabotinsky repeated his view that ‘cattle have a leader while people have a chairman’ and told his audience that the idea of an all-knowing, divinely inspired leader in history was often a mechanism to assist people in deferring responsibility for thinking for themselves... For Jabotinsky, a true party leader was the main thinker of his movement ... He professed his faith in the ideological heritage of the century of Garibaldi, Lincoln, Gladstone and Hugo.Colin Shindler’s The Triumph Of Military Zionism: Nationalism And The Origins Of The Israeli Right
But in the case of territorial integrity of the future state of Israel, Jabotinsky was not ready to negotiate. He emphasised that the Jewish state would be established on “both banks of the river Jordan”. The chorus of "Two Banks the Jordan has, This is ours and that one as well,” from his 1930 poem, “The Left Bank of the Jordan,” became the definitive revisionist slogan. So it was not at all surprising that he spoke against the exclusion of Transjordan (present day Jordan) from the future Jewish state. On the decision of the League of Nations in 1937 to recognise Jordan as a state under the British Mandate for Palestine as well as excluding the territories east of the Jordan River from the mandate, Jabotinsky stated:
Historically, the East Jordan Land was always part of Jewish Palestine: the Jews settled there even before the conquest of Western Palestine.
Following the death of Jabotinsky in 1940, his followers in the Betar expressed their opposition to the UN resolution which called for the establishment of a Jewish state since it included giving up Jordan. The Irgun which was the military arm of the revisionist movement repeatedly declared that they would continue their fight to liberate whole of Palestine on both sides of the Jordan river.
However, two years before Jabotinsky’s death, an important development took place in the Israeli right-wing movement. The 1938, Betar convention threw up a new leader, Menachem Begin, who took over the reins of the movement. Departing from significant teachings of Jabotinsky, Begin aimed to change the political conception ushering in a new era for Betar. And the new era was kickstarted by a major adjustment to the famed Betar oath which Jabotinsky had worked out.
In place of Jabotinsky’s “I will train to fight in the defence of my people, and I will only use my strength for defence”, Begin put forward, “I will train to fight in the defence of my people and to conquer the homeland”. In addition to replacing the primarily defensive image of the Betar with the idea of offensive action, Begin was more inclined to promote examples from the Torah and the ideas of Jewish particularity in contrast to Jabotinsky’s Euroliberalism.
The new Betar audience accepted Begin’s proposals and his ideas, even though Jabotinsky was opposed to them bitterly. But in a twisted case of irony, the democratic nature of Jabotinsky had to bow before the new aggressive Betar followers.
Stagnation In The Beginning
Begin restructured Irgun as a political party which was called the Herut. Like his mentor Jabotinsky, Begin was adamant in his refusal to accept the existence of Jordan, rejecting any proposals for holding negotiations with its ruler King Abdullah; Begin rejected the possibility of peace in part because he saw Jordan as an occupied part of Israel. But unlike his success in the Betar movement, Begin failed to elicit support from the citizens of the new Jewish state. In the first nationwide elections held in 1949, Herut won only 14 seats and was the fourth-largest party in the Knesset. The public did not buy into Herut’s promise of the liberation of Jerusalem and all of Eretz Israel.
This served as a lesson to the party which, during the second Knesset elections, focused more on economic demands like free enterprise for the middle class and drastic reduction of the bureaucratic intervention in areas of commerce and trading. This change of strategy didn’t work either. Herut’s seat share dropped from 14 to eight in the Knesset.
One of the major reasons for the poor electoral performance of Herut in 1950s was the presence of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Gurion, the father of modern Israel, was perceived as a strong, responsible leader, whereas Begin was seen as an adventurous activist still stuck in the days of the Betar movement. The public at that time believed that their homeland had reached a relative state of tranquility after years of struggle and persecution. They were thus less enthusiastic about Begin’s aggressive vision of creating Eretz Israel. But all that was about to change.
An Affair To Remember
In 1954, Israeli military intelligence carried out a clandestine operation called Susannah in Egypt in which a group of Egyptian Jews were enlisted to carry out bomb attacks against American and British-owned civilian targets in the country without harming any person. The idea was to pin the blame for whole affair on the Muslim Brotherhood or local nationalists. This, they thought, would convince the British to retain its occupying troops in Egypt's Suez Canal zone.
The operation was infamously called the Lavon Affair after the Israeli defence minister Pinhas Lavon who was forced to resign later. Following in Lavon’s footsteps, Moshe Sharett, the then prime minister, also resigned. David Ben-Gurion returned as PM.
Herut openly backed Lavon, which infuriated Ben-Gurion. But Begin and his party not only earned praise from the public but also from Zionist left parties like Mapam and Ahdut ha-'Avoda as well as from respected academicians who till then avoided any association with Herut. This event helped change Begin’s image from a disruptive activist to a credible leader of opposition.
Architect Of Unity
In June 1963, Levi Eshkol succeeded Ben-Gurion as the prime minister. In his new role, Eshkol transformed the country's political climate by adopting a friendly attitude with Herut. A year after he was elected, Eshkol passed a government resolution for the reinterment of Ze’ev Jabotinsky's remains in Israel which till then were kept in New York. The decision enraged Ben-Gurion, who in his time as PM did very little to recognise the former revisionist leader’s contributions.
In early 1964, Begin approached the centrists and liberal politicians to create a joint parliamentary bloc to counter Labour's dominance. After multiple meetings and negotiations, on 25 May 1965, the Liberal Party merged with Herut to form Gahal. But in spite of the alliance, the two parties continued to function as independent factions. The establishment of Gahal was a crucial step not only for Herut but also for Israel’s entire political spectrum. Until then, there had been no real opposition. The ruling Labour party made and broke alliances as it deemed fit.
In the 1965 elections, Labor Alignment again came up trumps with 45 seats while Gahal won only 26. The principal blame for the coalition’s failure fell on Menachem Begin who announced his wish to resign from the Knesset but dodged a bullet and was re-elected Gahal’s chairman.
Just when many in the Liberal Party leadership were demanding the dismemberment of Gahal, Israel found itself in the throes of an existential crisis which would lead to the Six-Day War. Three days before the war started, Eshkol formed a National Unity Government inviting opposition leaders in his cabinet and Begin got a shot in the arm with a ministership.
The ministerial post was not an act of mercy but a fitting reward as Menachem Begin was the main architect of this government, as it was he who successfully brought in Moshe Dayan as the minister of defence. Dayan and his mentor David Ben-Gurion at that time were not in good terms with Eshkol but Begin managed to bring them together in Israel’s hour of need. The victory in the 1967 war strengthened Begin's status. Eshkol’s successor and Israel’s first woman Prime Minister Golda Meir formed the government in 1969 with six ministers from Gahal, four of whom held portfolios. This crucial experience helped them in burnishing their governance credentials.
Establishing the Likud
In July 1973, on realising that he was not going to be appointed Chief of General Staff, one of Israel’s most decorated soldier, Major-General Ariel Sharon left the Israeli Defense Forces and declared his aim to form a new political entity. This entity included Gahal as well as former members of the Labour and Liberal parties. Begin declared that this new party would contain "disciples of Zeev Jabotinsky and of Ben-Gurion”. The resultant entity was aptly named Likud which meant “The Consolidation”.
The Likud was Gahal’s response to the Labour Alignment, a political entity established in January 1969, unifying the parties on the Zionist Left (Labour and Mapam). When the Likud was formed, Golda Meir and her newly elected administration was so popular that no one realistically thought the Labour was in any trouble. But on 6 October 1973, about a month after it was formed, the Yom Kippur War broke out and changed the course of history.
The eighth Knesset elections took place after the Yom Kippur War concluded. In public debates Begin tore into Golda Meir's government for its mismanagement before and after the war. But the public again chose to go with the Labour Party, though their romance was coming to an end.
Begin’s rising popularity among the Mizrahi Jews who formed the majority of Likud’s votebank, as well as a discord within the Labour Party resulted in a Likud victory in the 1977 elections. Begin finally formed a government after decades of struggle and became Israel’s sixth Prime Minister. Since then, Israel’s right-wing coalition has gone from strength to strength. It has successfully ruled the country for most of the years since 1977.
The children of Jabotinsky, once a footnote in Israeli politics, hold a firm grip today over the imagination of the Israeli populace.
This piece is a part of our special series on Israel.
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